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“It suddenly struck me that that tiny pea, pretty and blue, was the Earth. I put up my thumb and shut one eye, and my thumb blotted out the planet Earth. I didn't feel like a giant. I felt very, very small.” – Neil Armstrong (1930-2012)

Fresh Reads from the Science 'o sphere!

Sunday, November 04, 2007

Three-Layered Science Communication

I just finished grading over 680 undergraduate lab assignments (whew!) and while most students know generally what was going on during the training lab, the style of their writing isn't easy to read.

Mangled sentence structure is rather common, and there is quite a bit of repetition and beating around the bush, which I guess is to be expected in this sort of assignment.

Only a handful of students wrote clearly and succinctly, quickly showing me that they really understood the experiment. A few of them even drew illustrative analogies to help explain the experiment in a more visual way.

It's impossible to conclude anything from an undergrad assignment, but I get a sense that there won't be many people who know what is going on in a technical field and can communicate it clearly to lay people.

Science communication is an integral aspect of the science endeavour in developed nations because many of them have such a long scientific tradition that it has become part of their culture. In Singapore however, the scientific endeavour is very young, and the feedback that I get from talking to some members of the public isn't encouraging.

They don't know what is going on, nor do they care. That's sad because some of this knowledge will have direct impact on their lives. They are missing out on some really cool stories about how the Universe works, or how the world of science works.

Even from a super pragmatic point of view, scientific insight can help give them a leg up against their competitors.

So, how to bring science from laboratories and conference rooms into kopi-tiams (coffeeshops)?

Fresh Brainz will use the animated movie Ice Age (2002) to illustrate our three-layered approach in science communication to capture the public's attention and still provide accurate specialist insights with minimal exaggeration and hype.

Don't worry if you haven't seen the movie - there won't be any spoilers below.

(But you should watch it because Disney sucks and Dreamworks rulez.)

1. Lowest common denominator

The Ice Age movie is meant for both kids and adults.

Kids love it because there is a lot of slapstick comedy between Manny the Mammoth, Sid the Sloth and Diego the Sabretooth tiger.

Not to forget the random antics of the cute and blindingly stupid Scrat!

Even if they are too young to understand the story, wacky physical humour captures their attention and provides enjoyment.

This lowest common denominator transcends age and cultural barriers - the main reason why Rowan Atkinson's retarded Mr. Bean series is far more popular worldwide than his brilliant Blackadder series.

For maximum accessibility, Fresh Brainz is written in plain, grade school English with minimal technical jargon. Slapstick humour and stupid jokes are part of the writing style.

Our lowest common denominator also includes: sex and schadenfreude.

Wait... I can turn this into a slogan.

Science - because that's what I like to write!

Sex - because that's what you like to read!

... and Schadenfreude - because that's the most genuine kind of joy (since it doesn't include even a drop of envy)!

A staple of gossipy Chinese evening newspapers and tabloids, sex and schadenfreude have been capturing the attention of the masses since time immemorial.

Here at Fresh Brainz, we are loathe to tinker with this proven relic of negative selection pressures.

2. Coherent narrative

The basic story of Ice Age is simple - a ragtag group of animals migrating south for the winter, chance upon a human baby.

They don't like each other and may in fact be dangerous to each other. Despite the initial distrust, they slowly become friends and set off to return the baby to the human tribe.

Scientific discoveries and technological innovations don't always lend themselves to good storytelling. Some scientific issues are multi-faceted, theories are not mutually exclusive and experimental data can swing either way. The emergence of new technologies are similarly mired in complexity.

However, no matter how complicated the issue is, to avoid throwing gobs of facts and figures that sound meaningless to the regular reader (or even experts in other fields), a coherent narrative structure is a must.

Prudent simplification is the key.

The story should not attempt to present all the confusing aspects of a scientific topic - just one or two main ideas with clearly explained background, developing gradually using relevant facts and illustrations with intensifying rhythmic intensity until finally... a climax is reached.

Any complications should be then be noted and references provided for people who wish to go into more details.

Complications tend to appear after the climax. It's just in the natural order of things.

3. Insider jokes

Despite the deceptively simple main story of Ice Age, the entire movie is peppered with naughty language and insider references that only an adult (and a well-read one at that) can appreciate.

Not limited to jokes, there is a particularly emotional scene in the film when Manny relives a moment of tragedy and inner conflict.

Kids won't understand it, but adults will cry buckets.

These references don't appear often and even if you don't understand them, it won't affect the story.

Nonetheless, it's a *wink* to those in the know.

In the case of science communication, insider references are essential.

Experts quickly see pass the two layers of attention-grabbing shtick and simplistic storyline to find the details that they want - the significance and novelty of the scientific finding, as well as links to the original study.

In addition they are also soundly entertained by exclusive jokes that make them laugh like the squeal of a CO2 incubator on a weekend.

Insider reference is the highest (or narrowest?) layer of science communication that should be used sparingly, since it's really disturbing to see people winking at each other all the time.


So there you have it, Fresh Brainz's very own three-layered style of science communication, freshly baked to perfection with a mountain of whipped cream and a perky strawberry on top.

Will people eat it up? Or will they lick the cream off and leave the cake untouched?

Ok I'll leave you to enjoy that mental picture.

Mmm strawberry...


angry doc said...

Yup. Nothing like Schnapps and Schadenfreude to put the Schmile on my face.

Lim Leng Hiong said...

Blesch you!

Teck said...

Hi LH,

Your comment on scientific communication reminds me of a quotation I heard from Prof Michael Fisher, a physicist from U Maryland, last Friday at a talk at HCI.

I can't remember the exact phrase but it goes something like that: the physicist should not try to represent the physical world like a photograph in all its complex detail, instead he should draw a picture like that of a cartoon, to distill the essential features, in order to communicate the most important information.

Of course, deciding what is the most important or essential is an art in itself and hindsight often proves to be sharper.

Lim Leng Hiong said...

To Teck:

You're right. It's indeed quite a challenge - without the benefit of hindsight, what looks like an obscure paper today could be the backbone of a new scientific field tomorrow.

If the story is too clean and simplistic, experts will complain.

If it's too detailed and complicated, non-experts won't complain but they'll simply ignore everything.

I guess we'll just have to start somewhere and keep tweaking the style a little at a time until it connects with the target audience.

Teh Si said...

One bunch of science people talking about how to talk science.. with no references to .....journals... BUT cartoons..??

Wah piangz..

Keep it coming Freshz Brainz, I am quite sure that readership will continue to increase..surely it can't be only me that finds your blog entertaining/informative :)

Lim Leng Hiong said...

To Teh Si:

Thanks for the encouragement! Readership is iffy now, but I'll continue to try my best to write more interesting posts.

As for more serious science reporting standards, ScienceWoman at ScienceBlogs has summarized 8 essential points:

Assessing the credibility of science reporting

That's the sort of detail that an expert would expect from a trustworthy source.

Fresh Brainz is using her standards as a general guide (see the 8 Million Dollar Shark as an example) - however it's not easy to fulfill her requirements while keeping the articles fun to read and concise.

Teck said...

Hi Teh Si,

The point is not journals versus cartoons, but knowing what is essential and important to communicate. The bit about cartoons is just an analogy, of course.